In our 91st episode, we had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Ellinor Michel, who currently does research at the Natural History Museum, London, Department of Life Sciences, and is the chair of the Trustees and Management Board for Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.
In addition to their website You can also find the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs on Facebook or Twitter. Or you can watch several films about them like The Lost Valley of London, The Seven Deadly Agents of Destruction, or check out the Emerald Ant who built a travelling version of their most iconic sculpture.
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In this episode, we discuss:
- The dinosaur of the day: Rapator
- Friedrich von Huene named Rapator in 1932
- Unclear what exactly the name means
- Von Huene did not provide an etymology in his paper, and the word “rapator” doesn’t exist in classical Latin, and sometimes shows up in Medieval Latin and means “violator”. It’s possible Von Huene was going for Latin word “raptare” which means to plunder and thought rapator meant “plunderer” or it was a misspelling of raptor, which means “thief”
- Type species is Rapator ornitholestoides
- Species name means “Ornitholestes-like” and was named that because the Rapator bone found was first considered to be similar to Ornitholestes
- Carnivorous theropod that lived in the early Cretaceous in what is now New South Wales, Australia
- Holotype is of a left hand bone, found in 1905 on the Lightning Ridge (fossil is opalised)
- Bone is 2.75 in (7 cm) long
- Bone is similar to a first finger of an alvarezsaur or a primitive coelurosaurian
- Also similar to Australovenator, which was discovered in 2009, and based on that, thought to be a megaraptoran
- Estimated to be 30 ft (9 m) long, based on being similar to Australovenator (another theropod)
- Australovenator and Rapator may be synonyms (Agnolin and colleagues said in 2010 Rapator was nomen dubium due to only having fragments, but White and a team found differences between the hand bones of Rapator and Austrolovenator. Also Rapator and Austrolovenator were found in different formations that are 10 million years apart, so they’re most likely two different genera)
- Rapator and Walgettosuchus may also be synonyms. Walgettosuchus is a theropod found in the same formation. Only a caudal vertebra of Walgettosuchus was found, so it’s not clear if it is its own genus (also opalised)
- Megaraptora is a group of large carnivorous theropods
- It’s controversial where they stand phylogenetically
- Some scientists think they’re a branch of allosauroids, others think they were coelurosaurs related to tyrannosaurids, and others think they’re avetheropods
- An unnamed dinosaur found in Lightning Ridge in September 2015, known as “Lightning Claw” (may be synonymous with Rapator) shows that megaraptorids probably evolved in Australia, then spread to Gondwana in evolutionary radiation
- Evolutionary radiation is “an increase in taxonomic diversity or morphological disparity, due to adaptive change or the opening of ecospace.”
- Fun fact: The International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature regulates the scientific names of animals. We have talked quite a bit about the “Principle of Priority” which states that the earliest name gets precedence, but there are several other key rules: But in cases where the same author refers to an organism by multiple names, or when multiple people name the same organism at the same time, the “Principle of the First Reviser” applies. Basically the first subsequent author who chooses and publishes a decision of which name should be followed gets to decide. This is effectively how Antrodemus valens was chosen over Poicilopleuron valens. Of course later, Antrodemus was considered a nomen dubium because the only known fossil came from an unknown location and is of such poor quality compared to similar Allosaurus fossils.
For those who may prefer reading, see below for the full transcript of our interview with Dr. Ellinor Michel:
Garret: Dr. Ellinor Michel has a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, also in Geosciences from the University of Arizona, and is currently doing research at the Natural History Museum, London. Her primary expertise is in malacology, the study of mollusks, but she focuses on evolution and ecology.
Dr Ellinor Michel: It also occurred to me, I don’t know if it’s of interest, but I got interested in paleontology because I took my intro paleo course from Jack Sakoski and David Ralph at the University of Chicago when I was an undergraduate and that sort of shifted me over into understanding that deep time has a lot to tell us about how evolution, where we find out how evolution has happened and tying the recent in with the deep past became pretty core to what I thought was the right way to go to study evolution.
Garret: So you’re not strictly a dinosaur person, but do you have a favorite dinosaur?
Dr Ellinor Michel: Favorite dinosaurs are actually my Crystal Palace dinosaurs, and between them my favorite sort of bounces around depending on which one I’m looking at most closely. But the two Iguanodons and the dynamic between them probably pull my affection the most. They’re the ones I look at them and I see them as old friends, and then every time I see them there’s this little part of me where part of my heart jumps and I think I’ve seen something new in their sort of aging features. It’s that wonderful, there’s a love thing there definitely, yeah. So it’s the Iguanodon sculptures in Crystal Palace are the thing that at the moment are really motivating me. It may sound a little strange that it’s not a taxon per se. I mean I think Iguanodons themselves are terrific and I listened to your podcast about the Iguanodons, and I think it’s a wonderful group. But then the thing that really gets me going are these first representations of them as potential living animals.
Garret: Cool. So while we are on that topic what other dinosaurs are in the park besides Iguanodons? And I know they call them all Crystal Palace dinosaurs, but a lot of them aren’t actually dinosaurs.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, and in fact we use the term the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs to refer not only to the, what was 31 sculptures of extinct animals and then also there are geologic illustrations that there were a whole series of them around the whole area, and now we’re left with fewer, but they were depictions of how geology works. So we use the term Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and I usually capitalize the D to indicate that it’s sort of a proper noun, and it refers to all the sculptures, now there are 29 of them left, and the geologic illustrations. Of those there are only four sculptures that are real dinosaurs. There are two Iguanodons, the fabulous megalosaur, and the hylaeosaur. Those are the original Owen described, and then the rest of them are marine reptiles, the early amphibian like animals and extinct mammals. That’s all.
Garret: Cool. So the Crystal Palace is kind of an interesting thing because originally the Crystal Palace was an actual sort of palace. It was a big steel-enclosed building built for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, but then they made these dinosaurs a few years later. Do you know why they made these dinosaurs? Was it just like an accent for the building?
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, well so 1851 the world’s first Great Exhibition was put up in Hyde Park in central London down in the middle of town, and it was a bit of an experiment. And they got permission to put it in the center of the park but they were only allowed to keep it there for six months. That was the deal. But it was such a smashing success that they decided to try to find a way to keep it going, and there was a lot of business wheely-dealie stuff going on with the expansion into the suburbs, and the little suburb area of Sydenham and Penge and Norwood was just at the point of being developed. And the guys who owned a lot of land up in Crystal Palace, I’m speaking from there right now in this area, thought that what they could do is make a little deal about getting a bunch of train stations put into the area, bring in the Crystal Palace, and then suddenly develop this region as a way to increase their profits and a way to grow London. So that’s basically what happened. They moved the Crystal Palace to Hyde Park in its component pieces, and I think one of the things that was amazing about that building was that it was essentially the first large prefab building. So they took it down into its component parts, brought it down to South London which is about seven kilometers away, something like that, put it onto a train, rebuilt it in a very short period of time on the top of what’s essentially the second highest point in this part of London. A terrific location with a view. And then made a gigantic park with 200 acres around it, and they filled the park with things to amuse people, to inform people, and to sort of draw in crowds. It was a sort of early, something like Epcot Center in the U.S. A sort of Disneyland with a little bit more focus on education. And inside the Crystal Palace they put all kinds of wondrous things that they had had originally. A lot of replica archeological stuff, a lot of things about industry, and also some real material. And so you could pay to go into the Crystal Palace and see all these wonders but they also wanted to have draws around the park. So if you go down the hill from where the giant palace was, down it takes about ten minutes to walk into one of the lower areas, and this is in Penge which is part of the Crystal Palace catchment area, there’s a sort of a hollow, and in that area they remodeled the landscape to form the geologic tableau of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs.
Garret: Awesome. I didn’t realize that it had actually moved like that. That’s such a crazy thing to do.
Dr Ellinor Michel: They did all kinds of crazy stuff, and I think the credit on a lot of that goes to Joseph Paxton who was, he was originally a gardener but he was one of these kinda bonkers in a good way Victorian visionaries, and he saw, that’s probably also why he saw the placement of the Crystal Palace really needed to have a really beautiful supporting garden, an interesting garden around it. So he had lots and lots of interests in addition to, he started out in gardening and then expanded into doing this architectural marvel of the Crystal Palace and built it in parts. They were manufactured far away from London and brought in on canal barges. The glass was made in Smevic for example by a big glass manufacturer, and if you can think about how large sheets of glass are made you can imagine in 1854, well this would have been 1850, making that glass would have been quite an extraordinary thing, shipping it to London, and then on the scale that they did it because it was actually the largest building at the time. And that was all part of the vision of Joseph Paxton, who was originally a gardener, and he made it so it can be taken down and put back together again. I should also say that the Hyde Park Crystal Palace was pretty impressive but they decided to really big it up when they brought it down to south London and they made it a third again as large and they added a bunch of barrel vault arches, and so those were the kind of curvy arches with a fan top. And that was an innovation at the time to put that as part of the roof line, and now you see it all over the place. I have a little hobby when I travel around the world of looking for barrel-vaulted arches, and you see them everywhere. I saw them in South Carolina. In Brussels the European Parliament Building looks just like the Crystal Palace if you stand in the right sort of angle. Just all over the place. So that architectural innovation was mirrored all over the place.
Garret: Yeah it’s really an amazing building. I remember seeing it for the first time, or drawings of it at least because it’s not there anymore, and being amazed at how much glass they had, like you said, especially for the time, putting together this intricate structure of steel and glass where there’s basically no typical construction materials in the building at all. It’s so amazing.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Exactly. And then of course it would have all been, inside it would have all been open, empty. I think you know it’s a light box on the inside so it must have been extraordinary to be inside of it. Really just an amazing building.
Garret: So there’s an organization called the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. Are you in that organization?
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah. In 2013 my friend and colleague Joe Cane and I were having a stroll around the park. Both of us happen to be expatriate Americans living in the UK and very fond of history and the scientific history in particular of Britain, and we went to look at the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and noted that they were crumbling quite visibly. You can’t actually walk right up to them but you can see them from a few tens of meters away and you can see, we could see cracks and what we ended up calling toes, teeth and tails were falling off. And we thought well somebody should do something. And as soon as that phrase pops into your mind you think well who’s somebody, and you know obviously it should be the authorities in charge, whoever they might be, but they’re not doing it. So we formed a friends organization then and there, and that’s actually an official designation for a group of people who get together to provide a sort of positive constructive pressure on the people in charge to get things done. So we are an official “friends organization”, we are now a charity, a registered charity, and our mission is to get conservation work done on the dinosaurs and pull those toes, teeth and tails back together, and the more important structural interior as well. And also improve the interpretation around the site and tell people why we feel really excited about the Crystal Palace dinosaurs.
Garret: That’s great.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah. The friends organization, we now have a small board of professional people who are working voluntarily to use their skills to make sure that conservation interpretation happens on the dinosaurs, and that includes some pretty hardcore stuff in the conservation area, very technical stuff, and then also lots of, much more fun things around engagement and just making the dinosaurs, increasing love around the dinosaurs making everybody realize that they are celebrities and they need to be celebrated. They are one of the most amazing things that was part of London. They are a grade one heritage monument, which is the highest designation that you can get in the UK. Things that have a similar heritage designation are like Stonehenge. St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace, basically all the really very special monuments in the UK are grade one. And that means that they are recognized as being very important for the history of the nation and internationally. It doesn’t mean that anybody has to actually do all the work to conserve them. That actually has to come through pressure and people wanting to see it happen. And that’s what we’re trying to do now is build up the engagement and make everybody feel like these dinosaurs are their dinosaurs.
Garret: Yeah definitely. I saw a couple pictures about some of them being repaired. What kind of repairs have you guys gotten done so far?
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, well we’ve succeeded at getting work done on one of them, and that’s the famous standing Iguanodon. And it now looks absolutely beautiful. There are 28 more sculptures to go as far as conservation work goes with varying degrees of decay on the sculptures. Some of them are in pretty bad shape and some of them just need a little bit of maintenance and touching up. But the work on the standing Iguanodon was the most urgent. There were really large cracks on the body potentially due to some shifting of the ground underneath it, and they brought in a conservation company that specialized in historic structures and sculptures and they worked on it for about six weeks, did a complete overall renovation of the structure, putting in pins which are long pieces of steel that bind it from side to side and also across the cracks, they covered over the cracks, re-sculpted the surface, re-painted it and basically replaced the teeth to make sure that they were all in good shape and really made it all look very nice. That work though doesn’t come cheap because you need specialists to do it, so it costs quite a lot to get that done, and we’re looking at a pretty steep pending bill on the next round of work to get all of them done. We have had what’s called a condition survey, which is an official survey of each of the sculptures, but it’s a little hard to actually nail down the costs exactly. It has ranged between about 600,000 pounds and maybe 800,000 pounds, but when you put in implementation costs the overall work on the sculptures alone probably would be about a million pounds. And then when we figure to have an interpretation program that does justice to it would probably be about double that. So we’re sort of looking at sort of two million pound overall project ideal. That’s not gonna happen very quickly but we are making progress on getting these things worked on. The work on the standing Iguanodon finished in January. Now we’ve had a little bit of a pause and there’s gonna be a new round of works and that will be for about a half a dozen more of the sculptures, and it will start perhaps in the next couple of weeks. We’re not exactly sure of the start date but it should happen sometime in early to mid-August.
Dr Ellinor Michel: And then after that we don’t know exactly where the funding is coming from. We’ll be working to get the council, which is the governing body that owns the land and the dinosaurs; we’ll work to get them to try to put more funds in for it. They have done so already, including some funds. So it’s come from Bromley council and from the mayor’s office in London. And we’re hoping to get even more coming from them but people might realize that things are a little bit in turmoil in Britain so we don’t know exactly how things are going to pan out, and we’ll just keep our focus on trying to raise the funds needed to keep these heritage structures from falling down. Then we’ll be turning to major funders that might be able to support us and hoping that we find friends of dinosaurs around the world that are interested in making sure that these sculptures keep standing up.
Garret: Yeah they come up a lot in news and just people when they talk about dinosaurs or dinosaur sculptures, Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are often mentioned all around the world for sure.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah you know there’s a funny thing, I think that the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are probably a little bit more famous internationally than they are locally, and that’s one of the things that we want to try and change because they should be a source of absolutely enormous pride for everybody in the area. But I would say that within this area of London they’re seen as sort of a quirky side thing and we’ve done surveys to find out what people actually know about this part of their own heritage, and you know like any of these kind of surveys you sometimes are a bit astounded to find that people who’ve lived on Crystal Palace Park, next to the park, think that the dinosaurs maybe date from the 1970s or something like that. But in fact they are from the mid-19th century, so they were built from 1852 to 1854, and it’s time for them to become celebrated within all of the great things there are to see in London.
But I have found when I travel in museums around the world that the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are sometimes more celebrated abroad than they are here. So for example in Brussels there are panels about the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs because of their connections with Iguanodons but also as a founding outreach on paleontology. Apparently they’re in a museum I believe in Sydney. There’s a comment about them. And you’ll see references to them around the world where they are recognized as really important paleontological monuments. And they were the first ever reconstructions of extinct animals, so that’s the thing that makes them really, really special.
Garret: Yeah I just saw that looking at your website a couple of minutes ago and I had no idea that they were the first ever extinct animal sculptures. That’s just crazy to me.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, at life size for the big ones. I mean of course to make them, first they were drawn and then they were modeled in small models and then they were modeled as a large model and then they were cast. But they are the first ever attempt at doing this kind of a reconstruction, and that’s the thing that makes them really important.
Garret: Yeah it’s really cool. Do you know what they’re made out of?
Dr Ellinor Michel: We’re really, really interested in that. So we have a sort of a multi-pronged program, and I’d say one of the main parts of our program is to look into the conservation areas. When I say conservation I mean like materials conservation like materials sciences, and we’re interested in the history of how they were made, what the materials are, and then how that’s weathered through the years and what we can do to keep it in good shape. So that’s all parts of the conservation program, and we’ve got a terrific conservation team with a couple professional conservators leading that and a bunch of students and outreach going on, and so it’s really very active. But we’ve been looking to try and find out from each of the sculptures what they were made of. We’ve got several different historians of concrete, or I should correctly say historians of mortar are looking at thin sections for us. We’ve got a historical paint analyst who’s just at this moment looking at very tiny little layers of paint and looking at the history of the color of the standing Iguanodon. We have a chunk of it that I’ve now taken to her office. And so we’re basically trying to recreate the material history of the sculptures themselves. And they are made of sort of a range of objects. As you can imagine in the mid-1800s the way that people made concrete is a little bit different from now, and also the dinosaurs were made by an artist, a very talented artist named Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, and he experimented with materials in a bunch of different ways that might have been quite different from how someone who’s constructing a house for example would do with mortars, concrete, and things like that.
So when you look at the structures themselves they are made of a range of things. The standing sculptures, the large ones I should say, are essentially small buildings standing on pillars. So the standing Iguanodon and the megalosaur for example are effectively small brick houses that are standing on brick pillars, and then they’ve had parts opened out so that when you actually put your head inside they’re hollow on the inside. You can see out of the mouth because that’s open and there’s daylight coming through, and on the inside it’s very dark, but when your eyes adjust to this inside area you can see bits of tiling on the inside. So they sort of smoothed it out slightly. Brickwork, and when you do a cross-section through the structure itself you find that it’s a combination of some brick in parts, some sort of gravel pulled together with mortar, and then an outer layer that would be rendered with another sort of concrete and then sculpted on the surface, partly cast, partly sculpted directly on the surface. And each one of those are different. There are details picked out in each of these sculptures that sometimes are metal, and those have survived variously and are being replaced in various ways, so they’re each of them made in slightly different ways. And that presents an amazing conservation challenge because you’ve got all these different materials put together in kinda wacky ways. How do you actually do the conservation work so that it all stays together? It’s not as if it’s made of one single kind of material. It’s not like conserving let’s say a marble sculpture or even just a concrete sculpture; it’s the sort of amalgamation. And I should also say that when they made it they did some supports on the inside with iron, hoop iron. And hoop iron in particular is a sort of flattened layers of iron. And that means that when it rusts the rust sort of piles up into little layers and expands to, I’ll get the number wrong, but something like five times its original thickness. And that might have worked really well when they first made it but as time goes by and the sculptures weather that hoop iron expanded and then just caused major cracks. So that was one source of decline of the sculptures over the years. Much of that has now been excavated and replaced with something else.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, so it is a challenge to actually keep these sculptures pulled together. It’s a very interesting and fun challenge. We have open days planned for the conservation stuff and we did one last year when the Iguanodon was being, standing Iguanodon “Iggy” was being worked on, and it was really, really fun. We had six different groups of people come onto the island and get to peer inside the belly and look at the teeth and climb around on the scaffolding and actually get up close and personal with the sculpture. It was a heck of a day because there was also a huge storm that came through, so we were doing this in incredibly high winds. People came anyway, it was a non-stop group of people. So it felt really like a major expedition getting up close and personal to the big sculpture, really, really fun. And we had our conservation team explaining things about how the mortars are put together, you know, how the metal is being used and what the challenges are for conservation versus preservation versus restoration. That whole group of sort of specialized terms for what you do with historic objects.
Garret: Yeah, that is so much more complicated than I thought it would be. I was just imagining some like rebar and concrete and then you’re done.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, so so funny it’s like any job, it’s a combination of that where some of it is really very simple and it’s sort of jerry-rigged, you know? And some of it is very, very specialized work that requires very detailed stuff. I think conservation stuff is just incredibly cool, bringing together the history and these challenges of materials is amazing. It’s great. And I just have to stand back and wonder at the skills of the people that do it. They’ve got my admiration.
Garret: Yeah, just the topic of replacing that iron that’s rusting inside the concrete seems impossible to me. That must be a very unique skill.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, they’re surgeons, surgeons of concrete sculptures.
Garret: That’s great. So in Iggy is there usually a hole that you can stick your head up in or was that cut so that they could do the restoration work?
Dr Ellinor Michel: I’m pretty sure that it’s original because there’s one in each of the big standing sculptures. Those are now gated so if you were to be a naughty person and jump onto the island you couldn’t actually get in at the moment. We’ve got them locked up. But it used to be years and years ago, decades ago, that those holes were open. And so when you speak to local people in the area they will often get a sort of a wistful glazing over in the eyes and they’ll say you know when I was a teenager we’d get on the island and we’d, you know, we’d get inside the dinosaurs. And so that did happen and it shows up actually in people’s writing about the dinosaurs as well. But now they are definitely locked up and closed up and so you can’t go in.
Garret: Gotcha. Is that where the confusion, I was also reading on your website that they aren’t sure, there was that famous dinner party, whether it was inside the replica or if it was inside the mold. Is there enough space where you could actually fit a bunch of people inside that standing Iguanodon?
Dr Ellinor Michel: You can fit a few. You can probably fit a couple people. The inside is a little bit like a deep-sea submersible. It’s about the size of a small car, and you can kind of squeeze in maybe two people, three people, something like that. And once they’ve got the supports in there it gets pretty impractical. So the dinner had an invitation list of important people listed of about 20 different people I think, and so it’s absolutely clear that they were not all sitting inside no matter what, whether it was in the mold or whether it was actually inside the sculpture itself. What they could have done is put a trestle table with the couple most important people at the head, and that would be Richard Owen, maybe Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins as the artist but he was also sort of the one who was coordinating this publicity stunt, and a few of the other important paleontologists and businessmen who made this all possible. So it’s possible that there was a sort of a T-structure of a trestle table that seated a couple people inside the dinosaur and then the rest of it sort of sticking out the back, going out the side somehow so it vaguely looked as if they were all inside of it. It was very well stage-managed; it was a stroke of genius I think to do that PR event.
Garret: Yeah even now it just sounds like such a remarkable idea to go inside either a mold or the actual sculpture and have a dinner party with all these elaborate dishes and things before the opening.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, yeah. I mean it is one of the things that has captured people’s imaginations in the 160 years since then, and people mention it to us all the time. We are now working with a really terrific street theater and education company called Emerald Ant who have made a life-size reconstruction of Iggy, and it is a convertible stage that has a lift-off lid and inside they have a small theater area with a table and the actually do a little theater piece that reconstructs the history of geology from about 1812 to 1860ish in Britain. They do a play that sort of shows all that and it’s pitch-perfect. IT really does the job well because it’s historically very accurate, but it is just screamingly funny sort of street theater stuff where you know lots of sort of crazy things are happening. And they had their launch in Lyme Regis in the Fossil Festival with an audience of a couple hundred people at a time, lots of performances, and so we’ve got the dinner in the Iguanodon is actually being launched right now. Hoping to travel around the UK to schools, festivals, things like that to actually bring the story of geology and of the paleontology and also the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs just as a place, bring it around to everybody and make sure that it’s all sort of part of their cherished history.
Garret: That’s awesome. You mentioned that there’s an island that the dinosaurs are on. Could you explain what that is? I don’t know if I’ve seen what that means.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, okay well maybe taking a little step back, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was the artist who designed all of the sculptures. So you know Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins has become my hero in the process of this. I didn’t even know he existed before and I thought Richard Allen was the guy making all of this happen, but Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was the artist who brought these dinosaurs to life, and he was working in difficult circumstances in a couple different ways. One, quite obviously he was working with very fragmentary evidence and you look at the number of fossils, of bones that he had to pull together to try to reconstruct the animal, and they were often very, very few. Richard Owen is credited as the anatomist who sort of pulled together the interpretation context for the dinosaurs, and he certainly did that. He was an absolutely brilliant anatomist. He and George Couvier were the ones who paved the way for our understanding of how animals fit together and how you would do a reconstruction. And so many of us have always thought because Richard Owen was given the credit as the consulting scientist of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs that the whole reconstructions should be attributed to him, but in fact when you look into the historical literature, when things where published, what Richard Owen actually looked, it looks like the artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was probably the person who formed our vision of dinosaurs much more immediately.
Waterhouse Hawkins was an extraordinary illustrator. He was recognized as probably the best natural history illustrator of his time. When Darwin brought his specimens back from his round the world travels they were pickled, horrible little things. And he brought them to Waterhouse Hawkins and Hawkins re-drew them as if they were living animals that seemed to almost jump off the page. So he was that kinda guy who could make something really come to life.
Then he’s working with the fossilists, the paleontologists of the time, and they present him with a few bones, scattered bones, maybe hip bones or a few teeth from the new finds of dinosaurs, and he put these together in the way that made most sense to him as a keen observer of animal form, and I think he did an incredible job. I mean when you look at the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs standing there they look completely plausible. They look biomechanically possible. They actually, some of them are now known to be very, very inaccurate. I mean they’re quadrupeds when they should be bipeds, but considering what he had to go with he did a good job. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins then went on after building the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs to travel in the US, and he went on a lecture circuit and a consulting circuit, and he was hired in New York City to build a similar tableau in Central Park. And that process got pretty much underway. It was designed and the sculptures were in the process of being built in the middle of a shed in Central Park, and then there was a conflict with sort of a gangster Boss Tweed, and somehow this whole thing fell in the middle of it and there was a big act of vandalism. And Boss Tweed’s guys came in and broke up all the sculptures and basically trashed the whole place, and there wasn’t any money to start it all over again. And so that whole project basically died. Otherwise we would have had a parallel installation in New York City of American dinosaurs that were being found in the decades after Crystal Palace. But since that sort of political conflict happened we don’t have that and it took a while. There were no other dinosaur parks being put up for really quite some time. Nonetheless you can see Waterhouse Hawkins had quite a bit of influence in the U.S., made designs for an exhibition hall in the Smithsonian, his paintings can be seen in Princeton, and he did a speaking tour around the U.S. So he was a well-known guy and all of these sort of discovery processes had a very international components even in the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s.
And one of the things that he wanted to ensure was that the whole landscape, not only the sculptures themselves but the whole landscape told the story of geology. And as the I Know Dino audience knows that geology is a wonderful thing that tells us the story of deep time and the change of life through time, but that was all brand-new in the mid-19th century, and in fact it still is brand new to a lot of people and so the message still needs to be told. But Waterhouse Hawkins took it as part of his core objective is to translate that kind of a complex story into something really entertaining and also something that you could kind of feel when you’re walking around. So what he did is he set out, it’s actually three islands effectively. It’s a constructed landscape that is in the middle of a body of water, sort of two lakes at different levels with little tiny waterfalls in between them, and there are these three islands that each represent different geologic time periods. And he calls them the primary, secondary and tertiary islands. And nowadays we would correlate that with major geologic epics and what we see as extinction boundaries in between them. But at the time it was just known that these are time periods that have a lot of similarity between the fauna, then there’s a change, then there’s a bunch of different fauna, a bunch of different rocks, and another change. So we have this sort of, a layout that reflects what was known of the geology at the time. And the sculptures are put on their time-appropriate locations so when you walk through the Crystal Palace Dinosaur site you’re walking through time. I recommend starting in the deep time end which is on the far right, and then you get Labyrinthodon and Dicynodon, and then you move across an extinction boundary and find a lot of the other dinosaurs, and marine reptiles that were known, and mateleosaurs, and then you move on to the big dinosaur island, which is the secondary island. And those are the ones that are usually shown in the pictures where we’ve got the three dinosaur groups. The megalosaur, the first dinosaur, real dinosaur named, hylaeosaur which is the British forest dinosaur, and the Iguanodons also discovered in Britain. And then we learned a lot more about Iguanodons from the big discoveries in Belgium that happened sometime later.
Then you go across another little isthmus and you go into the area where the extinct mammals are represented. And you’ve got a giant ground sloth, Megatherium, and the Irish elk, the giant Irish elk bringing us into basically the recent. And then you end up at the café which is of course really today because that’s what you do for yourself, that’s our time. So it’s really a fantastic walk through time and it’s something that people enjoy no matter how much of their brain they’ve got switched on. You can go completely blank and not wanting to have any history at all, and you walk around and you see these goofy crazy sculptures and that’s really fun. And if you’re two years old you end up screaming with delight at them and having a really lovely time.
Looking at the birds as well, which is one of the great ironies, is the birds are sitting on top of the dinosaur sculptures. And so you see this kind of interaction which now we see from a phylogenetic standpoint, an evolutionary standpoint we see that as a relationship. So you walk along and you can have that kind of entertainment value, but you can also go through the sort of layers of information. And not only are there the sculptures of the extinct animals, you’ve got interspersed in that you’ve got the geologic illustrations. And some of those, some of the geologic illustrations are reconstructed to look like outcrops that you would find in other parts of England. So you would find a limestone outcrop from the Jurassic, and they’ve brought in actual stones from hundreds of miles away from the quarries where these things are found, and then put them together to look like the actual outcrop. There is a real fossil tree sitting behind the megalosaur, almost invisible. It’s just a crumbling Jurassic fossilized tree, but it’s there and it’s been brought there, it’s the real thing. So they did as much to be genuine about it as possible. As a paleontologist and my partner is also a paleontologist, we often have visits from our professional peers, and we take them for walks in Crystal Palace Park. And we find that we can talk about the dinosaurs from a professional standpoint, about the didactic inspiration from this site, and our peers are equally fascinated and captivated. They don’t usually scream as much as a two-year-old does when they see the sculptures but there’s this sort of amazing engagement. And it’s astonishing, I mean they are just sculptures, they’re Victorian sculptures but everybody loves them. They’re just incredibly quirky and weird but they have a lot to tell us about the history of science and how science happens, about what was known at the time, and what we know now, and just sort of giving an intuitive feeling for what those animals look like.
Garret: Yeah they are really cool looking, and pretty unique.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, so for example the Iguanodons in Crystal Palace Park, there are two of them. One is standing and one is sprawling. The standing one looks like he’s standing like a pachyderm. He’s standing like a rhinoceros or an elephant with his feet straight under him and very sort of strongly quadruped. And then in front of him is another one that is sprawling like an actual iguana or a crocodile, sort of the legs are out to the side. And Waterhouse Hawkins would have been completely aware that those are contradictory ways to reconstruct an animal. The musculature was either one or the other but not both. What he was doing by putting two sculptures up there is he was presenting the controversy. Because basically the scientific community wasn’t agreeing whether the Iguanodons were standing like a rhinoceros or sprawling like a crocodile, and so Waterhouse Hawkins just thought well I’ll do both of them and show people that there’s a debate going on, show people that this is what’s being thought about, and give that actual aspect of the science life in the sculptures themselves.
So I would say that when I’m looking at the views of the dinosaurs the ones that I appreciate the most is where you’ve got the sprawling Iguanodon in front of the standing Iguanodon and you’ve got those two things interacting, because that to me is such a powerful teaching tool.
Garret: Yeah, unfortunately for him it was neither.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Not even close, neither one of those was even close to correct. But I think what should be emphasized what we think is correct is a moving target, and that’s one of the main reasons of why I think this site is so important for the history of science, because it’s really important for everybody to realize that science is always remodeling itself based on new ways of interpreting and new data. I should also comment about those two Iguanodons, not only is he showing the controversy there, and Richard Owen was in favor of one but not the other reconstruction, and he didn’t seem to think that it was a super idea to put them both there but he kinda probably as with many things he probably just shrugged and went away, and he wrote the little guidebook, put his name on the front, and made it seem like he was responsible for the whole thing. But I think Waterhouse Hawkins was the one who really sort of pulled all these things together. So I think one of the things that’s there that was inadvertent on the part of Waterhouse Hawkins is the kind of the necessity, is that Waterhouse Hawkins was presented with this single spike for the piles of Iguanodon fossils. And if you’ve got a bilaterally symmetrical organism and you’ve got a single thing that’s bilaterally symmetric you put it right on the midline. So he put it on the end of the nose of the Iguanodon making it look a bit like a rhinoceros, and so there’s this sort of horn sitting on the end of the nose. Apparently Richard Owen thought that wasn’t really a very good idea. Again he shrugged, walked away, but Waterhouse Hawkins put it on both of his reconstructions. So they’ve both got this little very cute little horn on the front. When more Iguanodon fossils were discovered in Belgium, a huge cache of them, and it was quickly realized that that spike came in two per individual animal, and probably the best place to put them was on the thumb. So we now know that that is a thumb spike and not a horn on the end of the nose. But here in Crystal Palace we have a really big laugh about that because I started calling it the symbol of science, because it shows how the mistakes can be made and then reinterpreted and then put together again. But because I have a little bit of a lisp I said the thimble of science, and we all burst into hysterics. I’m doing a program about this, because there is the thimble of science sitting on the nose of the dinosaurs. We now see this as this sort of golden thimble, and we’ve got that as a little bit of our logo. So we’ve got the thimble of science sitting on the nose of the Iguanodon, and it makes us laugh every time we see it. So all these wonderful, wonderful little stories.
But, so the Iguanodons are the focus for that kind of story but we’ve got you know a similar story for many of the sculptures, and I think there’s a really interesting aspect is that as you go into deeper time the oldest extinct animals are the Dicynodon and Labyrinthodon, and those were the most inaccurate reconstructions. I mean they look very little like what we think Labyrinthodon should look like today. As you go more and more in towards the recent there were more fossils, better reconstructions, and you get to the point where you look at the last in the series, the ice age mammals, and the reconstructions are very, very good. And in 1854 the reconstruction is not all that different from what we have today to the point where the Irish elk is pretty much exactly spot on. We had loads of Irish elk fossils in this area so they were very well known, we’ve got good analogies among all the servants today, and so all the deer, and so there’s not much of a change in the interpretation and you have loads of data to go with on the stuff that’s most recent. So you can see this whole process of how science actually works in deep time just by looking at that decreasing accuracy as you go into deep time.
Garret: Yeah that’s fascinating.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, and the thing about walking through the site is that you kind of feel these things in a way that you don’t when you’re reading it in a book. So yeah.
Another point, one of the reasons this site often inspires people is that the sculptures themselves are not only odd but also very beautiful in a, just a wonderful way. And so they act as an inspiration for people for literature and also for graphic arts. And we have connected with a number of artists in the area who have painted or photographed or drawn the dinosaurs in many different ways, and we’re trying to pull together an overview of the dinosaurs as muses. It’s really interesting to see how these sculptures inspire people in very, very different ways. They are such incredible structures that really you can see people who have been inspired by them I think have found that their view of the world is changed in a good way. They’re also, they have a celebrity past. They are featured in photographs with a number of rock groups from the past. There’s a part of a record sleeve from the group Cream taken on the dinosaurs. The punk group The Slits have a photo session from there. We’ve got pictures of a number of different celebrities. So yeah, the dinosaurs are celebrities and they’re also inspirations, and they are muses.
Dr Ellinor Michel: The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are firsts in a bunch of ways. First reconstructions of extinct animals, but the other thing that’s actually really under-recognized is that this is the first ever large scale outreach, public outreach on science. If you’re going to be very strictly speaking about it there was public outreach on science by Faraday who showed the electric process elsewhere in London, it was I think a decade or two before the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, but in general there’s this moment of really quite a change in perspective that the general public would have an interest in complex ideas and in the beautiful ideas of science and would have an ability to actually absorb some of that. And that moment was in the mid-1850s, and the first time that that was really implemented was through the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs as a major outreach on science. And that’s true whether we’re talking about natural history, where it certainly was the first natural history outreach, or in science in general. The idea of amazing the public and engaging them through visual means, as well as sort of presenting the ideas, that was all radical and new. I tend to get a little hyperbolic here, and I’m going to make a claim that maybe some people will want to challenge me on, and that’s great, but to my feeling the idea of pulling in the general public when before that time complex ideas were sort of held back as something that was only the domain of specialists. To me that means that that was essentially the time of the birth of real democracy, because you can talk about the ideals of democracy which were happening in the late 18th century, but in order for democracy to work people need to be able to absorb complex thoughts and have access to them. And that needs to be a process of education and engagement. And when that actually started happening that was when democracy was actually turning on its engines and really getting going. So to me that is one of the most critical parts about the Crystal Palace site, so I see this as not only the birthplace of talking about geology, about paleontology, about extinction, deep time, natural history, and then when I sort of fly off the map I’ll say we can even pull in the whole democratic process into this sort of outreach package. And then you saw that happening all over in a bunch of other different ways of bringing the public into the rarified area of thinking about things that was previously only the domain for scientists or specialists. And I think that it’s for that reason that these grade one historic monuments should be preserved and celebrated for the celebrities that they really are.
Garret: There’s a pretty wide gap it seems like in terms of sculptures of dinosaurs. You’ve got the Crystal Palace ones from the 1850s, and I can’t really think of any other dinosaur sculptures from the 1800s. So you kind of jump quite a few years before you see other ones that are portrayed in completely different stances and even their faces and features look totally different.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Yeah, and it does seem that, the idea of a dinosaur theme park, it’s something that pops up over and over again but it didn’t really happen until, it happened in the Crystal Palace and then had some other abortive attempts which are really very interesting, and then didn’t really happen again on a big scale until the end of the 19th century. And then there were a couple more that shot up. But I would say that the one in Crystal Palace was the one that was sort of at its core of much more integrated and pure.
Garret: Yeah. Switching gears from Crystal Palace Dinosaurs we talk a lot about new dinosaur names on the podcast, and there are a lot of rules that go along with taxonomic biological group naming systems. What kinda things are debated when you’re talking about taxonomy and naming a new group?
Dr Ellinor Michel: Well part of naming a new group is usually fairly uncontroversial then if it’s something completely new then it just needs to be published properly according to the rules, and in the past those rules meant that it had to be published on paper in a journal, and then in recent years the ICZN and its parallel organizations have changed the rules so that it’s possible to publish electronically. That debate went on for almost a decade and it was very, very heated, but we now seem to have sorted that by the dual development of archiving tools for digital information and sort of a modernization of perspectives on how that can be accountable. But I would say one of the things that is probably the next hot thing to be debated is what is a type specimen? Because in the past it was always some hard object that you put your hands on, and that usually meant that it had a three dimensional component. And I think that still exists but the question of how do we fit that in with DNA data and information derived from secondary sources like scanning, which is more relevant for paleontologists, that debate is sort of ongoing and the same questions sort of rear their heads usually every few months, strangely, in the professional discussion literature. So there’s a lot going on.
And the other thing I should mention for six years I ran the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature as the exec sec for that organization, so I’ve got a really strong interest in names of animals and typification. So tying down the squishy concepts of taxa down to an archive standard. Basically that’s what a type specimen is. And what museums are, their core function are really in my mind.
When I was listening to a few of your podcasts and I can’t tell you how delighted I was to hear your enthusiasm and you know you guys just wade right in on that stuff, and it seems as if your audience must be well versed in the importance of typed specimens and all the process of actually getting the name right and you know making it work. I just loved that. It was the first time I’d really heard that in a science broadcast, because usually that’s really swept under the rug. So I just wanted to say how much I appreciate that.
Garret: Thanks, we do try, although we do get a fair amount of things wrong too. But we try and be accurate.
Dr Ellinor Michel: Well can I tell you working on the inside of that for a long time wrong can be a matter of interpretation, and even among the commission, the ICZN or commissioners themselves, are all the absolute experts in names, nomenclature, nomenclature, whichever you wanna call it, but they have differences of opinion on stuff, different ways of interpreting the rules of the code, and so the debates that we have to field on the inside were often quite fierce. And it was actually for a fairly legalistic and bibliographic kind of job it was absolutely fascinating and I really rather enjoyed it. It also has an important core mission, so I think it’s an important thing to recognize.
Garret: Great. So I think that’s about all the questions I have. Is there anything else that you wanna share?
Dr Ellinor Michel: I guess just working on this project with the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs has made me appreciate all the different ways that you communicate with people, and I wanted to thank the guys who put me in touch with you, Chris Coulson runs a company called Rent-A-Dino. He’s got a tyrannosaur that runs around and roars at people. And in some ways it’s the counter to what we’re about at the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs because we’re about the history and I’m strangely a little bit anti-North American dinosaurs.
Garret: Oh no.
Dr Ellinor Michel: I am a North American originally, but the reason for that is just because the British dinosaurs and the sort of foundation of paleontology in Britain gets a little bit overlooked, and any time anyone says the word dinosaur the predictable word on the public’s lips is tyrannosaur, or Triceratops, or something like that, you know? And it’s like well wait a minute, what about Iguanodons? What about megalosaur? Hylaeosaurs are beautiful. What an animal to have discovered right here in Britain. And so in some ways having a walking, roaring tyrannosaur is slightly counter to what we’re about in the Crystal Palace. But on the other hand as soon as that happens there’s this emotional response when Chris brings his thing in and this emotional response among people, and that’s actually part of a learning moment. That’s what I’m having such a good time with in this Crystal Palace Dinosaur project is doing it in all these different ways. So you’ve got a “live tyrannosaur”, we’ve got this street theater engagement project which is absolutely splendid and just fantastic, we’re working with an artist who’s doing wonderful, very cheerful spare but historically and anatomically very accurate sort of cartoon figures of the dinosaurs, I mean basically the whole thing. We’ve done a play called the Dinosaur Doctors. The Dinosaur Doctors are the ones that come in and do the conservation work on the crumbling sculptures. We’ve done a couple films. We’re working with a great filmmaker and history tour specialist named Anthony Lewis. He’s done a short film called The Lost Valley of London. Four and a half minutes of absolutely pitch perfect introduction to the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. It’s also sort of hilarious camp style so it’s wonderful to watch, and then building onto that Anthony and our former conservation specialist Lisa Briarly put together the play of the Dinosaur Doctors and then they did another short film called The Seven Deadly Agents of Destruction, and it’s all about conservation risks to outdoor sculptures with the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs as the focus, and again it’s done in this sort of camp hilarious animated style, and bringing what was an academic list of conservation threats into a format that you can use to teach kids of ten years old and they’ll actually find it really quite fun and start looking at historical stuff and say hey look, you know, it’s crumbling, let’s do something about it. And getting the idea that there is some shared responsibility for our heritage, and that if you’re gonna keep your heritage you’ve gotta actually do the work to make sure that it stays together. Yeah, I guess that’s probably it Garret, that’s the shout out to some of the people we’ve been working with.
Garret: Cool, all right well that was a really good interview. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
Dr Ellinor Michel: I really enjoyed it, thank you.
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